It never fails to amuse people when I tell them I’m pretty terrible at cooking Asian cuisine (and also speaking, writing, and reading in Mandarin – but that’s a story for another time). Obviously having grown up in a Taiwanese household, my home-cooked meals always had the characteristic flavours of soy, rice wine, sesame oil, and five spice; after many years of eating the same flavours repetitively, it does get rather tiring. When I was in school I would enviously eye off the (what I saw as) “exotic” meals of pasta, wraps, and pies my Aussie friends had.
Fast forward to moved out of home last year and no more Chinese food on the menu except when the lads from my old job want to go out for cheap dumplings and copious amounts of BYO – and I rarely even join them any more – my Friday night endurance levels have severely been depleted; a sure sign I’m getting old. And of course, its in its absence that you start to miss it. So it was time to roll up the sleeves, consult some recipes, draw on my heritage, and hope that my ancestral background would provide some guidance in the kitchen.
The three Chinese dishes I love the most are Hot and Sour Soup, Black Bean Chilli Noodles, and Mapo – or “Grandma’s” – Tofu. It’s a surprisingly easy and fast recipe and most of the items are inexpensive and can be picked up at any Asian grocery store. Some more of the traditional recipes use pickled chillies, but to save myself the embarassment having to attempt to decipher the Chinese-only labels in the supermarket, I decided to use fresh red chilli instead and it worked quite well. This is a divine dish served simply with steamed white long-grain rice.
To serve two, you will need:
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns;
- 300g silken tofu;
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil;
- 100g pork mince;
- 1 sprin onion, finely chopped, plus extra to serve;
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped;
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger;
- 2 teaspoons mirin/sake/Chinese rice wine;
- 1 tablespoon chilli bean paste;
- 1 long red chilli, seeds removed, finely chopped;
- 125ml chicken stock;
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce;
- 1/2 teaspoon white sugar;
- 1 teaspoon cornflour;
- Steamed rice, to serve.
Dry fry the peppercorns in a medium frypan (or wok if you have one) over low heat for 1-2 minutes until light brown and aromatic. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and grind until fine.
Cut the tofu into large cubes and place in a heat-proof bowl. Pour over enough boiling water to submerge, allow to sit for five minutes before carefully draining and set aside.
Place the frypan/wok over high heat. Add the oil and pork mince and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes, breaking up the mince with a wooden spoon, until evenly browned. Add the spring onion, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the rice wine. Add the chilli bean paste, chilli, and half of the ground peppercorns and cook for two minutes until the oil turns red and the mixture is aromatic.
Add the chicken stock, bring to the boil and season with soy sauce and sugar. Gently slide the tofu into the frying pan/wok and work the tofu into the sauce without breaking it up too much. Reduce the heat and simmer for six to seven minutes until the sauce has reduced slightly.
If the sauce is not quite thick enough for your liking, combine the cornflour with two teaspoons of hot water and mix into the sauce. Cook for a further two minutes until thickened.
Serve sprinkled with the remaining Sichuan pepper, spring onions, and steamed rice. I also had some Chinese broccoli (gai lan) on the side to balance out the meal! Very satisfying, fast, and too easy.